You may not be familiar with my stellar resume, so let’s review. One time, ScHoolboy Q got arrested at my SXSW show. Another time, I went to the Playboy Mansion and (kinda) got in a fight with Xzibit. And then there was that time I broke the Krispy Kreme is a hoax story, for which I was awarded all of the Pulitzers ever. Wait for it, wait for it....you knew it was coming.
Oh yeah, and I was also one of the first people to publicly talk about seemingly indie rappers who are secretly signed to a major label, whom I oh-so-cleverly called “mindie” rappers (major x indie = mindie)*. Breaking the mindie phenomenon is legitimately one of the better things I’ve done as a music writer, but in even the last couple years enough has changed, and enough people still ask me what I’m talking about when I use the term mindie, that I thought the topic was worth a revisit. Let’s start from the beginning.
About two years ago I was having lunch with an A&R, which may sound name-droppy but is actually the kind of ordinary thing that happens when you’ve been working around the music industry for years. In fact, one of the first real lessons I learned is that the vast majority of A&Rs don’t have any real power. Their role as an “influencer” is mostly smoke and mirrors, which is maybe why this guy told me about the mindie deals he had seen, to make himself seem important, a possessor of secret knowledge. Or maybe he just couldn’t handle his lunch beers like my Slovak liver. Or maybe he just didn't think it was a big deal. But whatever the reason, when I asked him what artists he was working on, he just came right out with it. “Actually, we’ve got Kevin Gates, Skizzy Mars and Cam Meekins signed, but we’re not making it public.”+
I didn’t want to scare him away from telling me more, so I stayed cool and calm. The inside of my head was like, WHAT? IS THIS A THING PEOPLE KNOW?!?, but my face looked as calm as if he had just told me he likes ham sandwiches. And it worked, he kept talking. Essentially, the strategy revolved around the idea that a big part of these artists’ appeal was their “indie” status. Fans loved feeling like they were supporting an indie artist, loved feeling like the artist’s successes were their successes, and that by making a major label signing public they’d ruin that relationship. Even though behind the scenes they’d be giving the artist a marketing and promotions budget, they’d keep the relationship in the background, if not hidden. It made sense. Everyone loves feeling like they discovered an awesome new artist, no one likes feeling like they’re the target of a corporate advertising campaign, especially when it comes to music.
The artist would get access to resources they wouldn’t have as an actual indie artist and the label would get a potential future superstar at a bargain price early in their career. Everyone wins. (Except the fans, and the artist locked into a bad deal, and the label when that artist doesn’t take off. But otherwise, sure, great plan.)
At the time, this felt like enough of revelation that I was careful about saying too much. Who knew, maybe this dude was just making it all up. I wasn’t going to potentially mess up anyone’s career, or my own, by naming names. I’d talk about it, but cautiously. But knowing these mindie deals could even possibly exist started to change how I viewed new artists. Trinidad James blows up seemingly out of nowhere, says he’s unsigned in interviews, then literally eight days after that interview he announces that he’s signed to Def Jam? Maybe, or maybe he was always secretly signed to Def Jam and they helped blow up "All Gold Everything" behind the scenes. The matrix was opening up to me, the signs of secret major label manipulation were everywhere. The paranoia was creeping in.
Then, slowly, over the years, more and more evidence started to leak out that perhaps my paranoia wasn’t so paranoid after all. A friend ended up at a party at legendary exec Lyor Cohen’s house with Joey Bada$$ where Lyor said he was working on signing Joey. Joey’s people have insisted that a deal with Lyor was never really on the table, and I believe them, but it also showed me that at the very least the barriers between the indie/underground and the big time movers and shakers might not exist like I had perhaps naively always assumed.
But ultimately that Lyor story was pure conjecture. The first actual, for really-real evidence that supported my mindie hypothesis was this story on Young Thug’s label deals. Turns out that behind-the-scenes he was signed to APG, exactly the same imprint that A&R who originally told me about mindie signings worked for. It didn’t work out because, surprise, Young Thug didn’t turn out to be the most reliable business partner, but still….real evidence! If I knew for a fact that APG had kept their deal with Thug under wraps, it was no longer crazy to think they had other deals they were similarly keeping on the low. And what were the chances that APG was the only major label using this tactic?
And then Logic. Oh….Logic. Just listen to this:
Most people probably didn’t pay much attention to that portion of the interview, Rosenberg completely brushes it off, but for me, the guy who’d spent the last year wondering if every popular “indie” artist was secretly signed to a major, it was an epiphany. And I mean epiphany in the dictionary sense: a manifestation of the divine. HOLY SWEET BABY JESUS LOGIC WAS A MINDIE ARTIST!!! I’M NOT CRAZY AFTER ALL!!!
Knowing for sure that mindie deals existed only made me more paranoid, though. Suddenly, there wasn’t a new rapper who was getting even a glimmer of shine that I didn’t suspect. Was Raury’s sudden ascension really that organic? How long had he actually been signed to Columbia? Dej Loaf goes from almost complete unknown to viral sensation to a deal with Columbia in the span of a couple months completely on her own? Drake signed Makonnen to OVOafter he did the "Tuesday (Remix)"? How long had Drake and Makonnen really been working together? Where did Makonnen get the money for those pretty high-budget, supposedly pre-signing videos?
To be absolutely clear, I have zero evidence that any of those artists I just mentioned are mindie. I'm only bringing them up as hypothetical examples. They really could have blown themselves up and then signed to a major label. It’s not just possible, it’s highly likely. But that’s the nature of my mindie-induced paranoia; I now trust no one.
I sat down with 9th Wonder a few months back, looked him dead in the face, and said, “Tell me Jamla is actually indie. Don’t let me find out that Rapsody’s been secretly signed to Atlantic for the past two years.” He insisted there was (at the time he told me) zero major label involvement in Jamla, and I believe him because 9th is one of the few people I trust as a man of his word. But after that Logic admission, at least one fiber of my being, .01% of me, will always wonder. After this, this, this and countless more stories, can I ever still be totally confident that any of my sports heroes haven’t used steroids? That’s exactly where I’m at with indie rappers.
And not all of the increasingly blurry lines between the majors and indie are so hidden. Those blurs are just the nature of the constantly changing nature of the music industry in 2014. Is Macklemore indie? He’s not signed to a major label, but he did hire the major label system to help get Thrift Shop on the radio. Funk Volume now has a relationship with Warner Bros. that Funk Volume CEO Damien Ritter has said doesn’t fundamentally change their indie status. He spoke about it how those deals can be structured in an interview with HipHopDX, and also touched on the mindie phenomenon (although I’ve clearly got to get him to use the term “mindie).
“Some people in the majors are starting to get it. You’ll see that with them signing artists and not announcing it for a year-and-a-half. They want it to look independent, organic. Or you’ll have major labels that have different entities that service independent labels. You don’t have to sign—that’s what [Macklemore & Ryan Lewis] did. They work with ADA, which is owned by Warner [Music Group]. The people work on the same record [as Atlantic Records], utilizing the same resources, but it’s independent. The definition is changing. Some people don’t feel that’s independent; I do. I feel that if you have 100% control over your music and you can’t be bought, you’re independent.”
Ritter raises a great point that I think gets at the heart of the entire reason I’m writing this; just what does the word indie mean in 2014? There’s certainly a business and financial aspect. In the “indie” world it’s assumed that everyone’s essentially playing on the same field – whatever they can make purely on their own. That might be a nice idea in theory, but in the real world that might just not be true anymore, and it’s by no means a recent phenomenon. Artists have been getting funds from private bank accounts and famous influencers since the dawn of hip-hop. A lot of people forget that Rawkus Records, which is often looked at as the apex of gritty, real, underground hip-hop was backed by billionaire Rupert Murdoch.
But that’s business, and I don’t think most fans care whether some guy named Steve working from his living room or Universal Music Group is handling digital distribution. Where the word indie really matters is the music. It signifies something cultural, something pure, a musical meritocracy. Iggy Azalea is popular because multi-million dollar corporations literally conspired to play her music repeatedly until she became popular. In the world of indie music, though, an artist is supposed to become popular because they make better music than anyone else. Period. The music they make isn’t the result of a major label A&R’s focus group, it's the result of that artist’s art.
While, again, that might be naïve, I think it does really matter, and in turn, that’s why these mindie deals matter. This isn’t a meritocracy, the playing field isn’t even for everyone. For those inside the industry that sentiment—and this entire article—may seem like me writing 2,000 words explaining that water is wet. But from my daily talks with indie artists (actual indie artists) and the general hip-hop populace, I know that the purer definition of indie is still the overwhelming standard. There’s nothing wrong with signing to a major label, and there’s nothing wrong with staying truly indie, but I do think artists have an obligation to not obscure the truth from their fans. Does it matter that Logic had been signed to Def Jam for years before his official major label debut project dropped last week? Well…yes, I think it does. Ultimately, Logic is the reason for Logic’s success. If major labels were that good at making artists popular there wouldn’t be so many artists that flop, or more commonly simply fade in and out of the industry. But if an artist signing to a major label matters, and I think we all agree that is does, then it should matter even more when no one knows about it. As Logic said in that interview, the reason he didn't want anyone to know he was signed was because he didn't want fans thinking his music was being influenced by Def Jam.
Hoodie Allen is absolutely crushing right now, is he mindie? He says he’s not and I believe him…mostly. (See above to that .01% number.) Knowing what I know about mindie deals and considering his phenomenal success it’s almost hard to believe that Chance the Rapper isn’t secretly signed, but I’ve talked to a lot of people around him, and I’ve yet to hear even a whisper involving a deal. I also haven't yet heard any of his songs on the radio, which is actually a huge sign that someone’s mindie. If Chance is secretly signed or backed by someone powerful, he’s been extraordinarily good at keeping it concealed.
Maybe Chance really is truthfully, purely independent. Maybe Hoodie is too, and the same goes for every other artist finding success as an indie. Frankly, I have no idea. Somebody call Sway because right now I have far more questions than answers, and that might just be the truth in 2014; the truth is that there aren’t any hard truths. There are no easy answers, no clear definitions. As the music industry and culture, in general, continues to fracture it’s also becoming more interwoven, mixed, blended. The gray area is growing larger every day and in many ways, that’s a good thing. We’re just going to have to become comfortable living with uncertainty.
So if this article starts to make you wonder if your favorite indie rapper is secretly signed to a major label, all I can say is be uncertain. Be very uncertain.
Photo Credit: Nick Mahar
+ Not an actual quote, but basically what he said. It’s not like I was secretly taping our conversation on some V. Stiviano shit.
* Yes, I’m aware that me trying to popularize the term “mindie” is exactly this.